If You Think Deep Dish Is Chicago's True Pizza, Think Again
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because tavern-style pizza was warming the Windy City long before its bigger, deeper brother.
By Joshua Eferighe
The deep-dish pizza has been living a life of lies.
The pie, so big and so thick that it makes you wonder if it’s still even pizza, has been parading around as Chicago’s ambassador, putting itself up against New York and New Haven pies. It’s gotten to the point that deep dish, like the “The Bean” and Chicago’s unforgiving wind, have been ingrained in people’s minds as a Chicago staple, even though it’s not.
The deep dish is neither Chicago’s first nor its favorite pizza, and it’s definitely not the most consumed. In fact, the deep dish wasn’t even made by Chicagoans. There is a sham going on, a stolen identity. The true Chicago-style pizza is tavern style — a thin, crispy-crust pizza typically made with pinched sausage and Giardiniera peppers and cut into various square sizes (boosting its share-ability), and it’s time it takes the throne as Chicago’s official pizza.
If you’re not from Chicago, you’ve probably long assumed that deep dish is the city’s standard, and it’s not your fault. When you look at the towering, dense walls of cheese complemented by its crispy, crunchy base, it’s easy to see how the narrative has lived on. Many have been caught up in the PR spin that has robbed the tavern style of its fame.
The culprit? Lou Malnati.
Conceptually, the idea came from a Texas-born Chicago transplant named Ike Sewell who offered deep dish in his restaurant, Pizzeria Uno, back in the mid-1940s. That’s where Rudy Malnati Sr. worked, and he passed the tricks of the trade onto his son Lou Malnati — whose name is now synonymous with deep dish. “[Sewell] had the American idea that bigger is better, that pizza wasn’t just something you had with the meal — it was the meal,” says John Porter, a former U.S. Pizza Championships judge and organizer of the Chicago Pizza Tours.
But for the longest time, burgers were America’s go-to when it came to eating out. It didn’t matter if you had tavern style in the ’20s or deep dish in the ’40s, the craze was shakes and fries, with red meat to match. It wasn’t until Lou’s mass promotion, coupled with the pizza boom of the late ’60s, that the deep dish caught on, and it hasn’t really slowed down since, as witnessed daily at the 55 Lou Malnati locations across the city.
“[Lou Malnati] was a master marketer,” says Steve Dolinsky, a longtime Chicago food reporter and author of Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America’s Greatest Pizza Town. “There was a line down the block when he opened back in ’71 because he had done such a good job promoting it.”
While deep dish started in the early ’40s, tavern style can be traced back to the Prohibition era of the ’20s and ’30s. Even though there was a ban on liquor, hundreds of taverns across the city covertly distributed alcohol and served free square, thin, salty bite-size slices of pizza to keep the guests drinking.
You could find these taverns in every neighborhood of the city, unlike deep-dish offerings at the time, which were concentrated in the downtown area. This is why tavern-style pizza is the true Chicago style: It is everywhere throughout the city’s neighborhoods. “Think about it,” says Dolinsky. “Where could you find a tavern-style pizza on the Gold Coast or on Michigan Avenue? If it’s only available in two places from 1943 to 1955, how is it Chicago’s pizza?”
But what’s worked against tavern style’s publicity is exactly what makes it the authentic Chicago pizza. It’s not as flashy as the deep dish, but it’s consistent and reliable — like the people. The deep dish is pricier and too heavy and rich to eat every day, but tavern style is practical and shareable, a win-win for the city’s hardworking people.
The draw of the deep dish is its absurdity, not its greatness. And I get it — you’re going to want a little something extra in your life from time to time. But it’s still time to set the record straight: The deep dish has stolen the spotlight for far too long, and it’s time for tavern-style pizza to take the crown as Chicago’s true pizza — not to mention a slice of the fame.